Here in the UK we have a saying that goes roughly like this - you can wait ages for a bus, to then find that 2 come along at the same time.
Replace ‘a bus’ with ‘an app to help the blind identify objects and situations that they encounter in their daily lives’, and you have what is about to happen in the iTunes App Store.
Both apps will enable blind and low vision users to capture images of what they have encountered and ask questions that they want answered. If both apps work as promised, an answer will arrive back within just a few seconds. The potential value is obvious.
Of course, this type of tool is nothing new to blind iOS users. As far back as May 2011, VizWiz was launched offering nearly the exact same functionality. In October 2012, this was joined in the App Store by TapTapSee, which offered a very similar service.
However, despite both apps still being available, it’s only TapTapSee which you are now likely to hear people using and recommending.
Consequently, TapTapSee is likely to be the app that both Specular and Be My Eyes will be trying to replace on your Home screen. However, equally challenging for the developers of the new apps, will be learning lessons from VizWiz.
Whereas TapTapSee has switched from a free service on launch to a subscription model, VizWiz has remained free to use. Because of this, it’s difficult not to be reminded of another old saying when you hear about the poor and misleading results which have caused most users to give up on VizWiz - “you get what you pay for”.
Considering the plaudits that it received and the way that it made you feel empowered and liberated when it first landed on our iPhones, it’s hard not to now look at VizWiz and feel a sense of sadness.
Compare this to TapTapSee, which seems to go from strength to strength - receiving regular updates, gaining new features, and only last month placing third in the Best Assistive iOS App of 2014 in the AppleVis Golden Apple Awards. Clearly its developers must be doing something right, and it makes you wonder what the two new apps will be able to offer that will have people reaching for them instead of TapTapSee.
According to their respective websites, both Specular and Be My Eyes will be using volunteers to answer the submitted questions. This would be an immediate distinction from TapTapSee, which uses a combination of automated object recognition technology and paid web workers.
At this point, we can only speculate as to what this distinction might mean in real terms for the end user. Ultimately, it’s likely to depend upon what checks and balances are in place to ensure the accuracy and value of the query results.
Whether there will be a cost for using each of these services is also unclear at this point. Specular currently appears to have no indication on it’s website of whether its service will be free or paid. Be My Eyes indicates that a subscription model and/or donations are being considered as possible sources of funding.
However, based upon the VizWiz experience, I suspect that many of us will be prepared to accept that a free service that delivers accurate and meaningful answers is unlikely to be realistic or tenable.
One notable difference that does appear to exist between the two new apps, is that Be My Eyes uses live video chat to communicate with the volunteer at the other end, whilst Specular will require you to record and submit your question. Each approach has its merits, and its also likely that some people will simply be more comfortable using one method over the other.
it’s certainly going to be interesting over the coming months to see what these new apps are able to bring to the table and how they will distinguish themselves both from each other and what is already available in the form of TapTapSee.
If you have suggestions for what that could be, I would love to hear them in the comments below.